The Trump administration is working to protect religious adoption and foster care agencies that have been threatened by "burdensome regulations" imposed in the closing days of the Obama presidency.
Days before leaving office President Obama implemented new regulations that targeted religious foster care providers by requiring recipients of federal assistance to abandon "discriminatory" standards in placement. South Carolina asked the Department of Health and Human Services for an exemption to protect one of its largest foster care agencies, Miracle Hills Ministries, which only places children in Christian households. The Trump administration granted the exemption, saying that religious partners were vital to caring for children. The Obama-era rules could run afoul of religious liberty protections, according to Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary for the department's Administration for Children and Families.
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"Faith-based organizations that provide foster care services not only perform a great service for their communities, they are exercising a legally protected right to practice their faith through good works," Johnson said in a statement. "The government should not be in the business of forcing foster care providers to close their doors because of their faith. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right."
Religious providers have been forced to close their doors after regulators in states such as Illinois and Massachusetts because they did not place children in homosexual households. Johnson said the federal government should not pressure religious believers to violate the tenets of their faith in order to serve vulnerable children. The United States faces a shortage of providers even as the demand for them has increased amid the opioid crisis, according to the agency.
"By granting this request to South Carolina, HHS is putting foster care capacity needs ahead of burdensome regulations that are in conflict with the law," Johnson said. "It protects minors who are in need of as many options as possible for being placed in loving foster families."
Some churches are fighting back against attempts to shutter services they have offered for more than a century. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has accused the city of violating its religious liberty by attempting to cut off their adoption and foster care programs even as the city faces a shortage "crisis." Mark Rienzi, the archdiocese's attorney at the non-profit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said he was pleased to see HHS protect religious freedom.
"There were raised fears that some HHS requirements would kick religious providers out, so it was very good for the agency make clear that that's not what federal law requires," Rienzi said. "This takes federal law and the Constitution's requirement to respect the civil rights of believers seriously."
Rienzi said the agency announcement should send a clear message to regulators at the state and local level. He called the actions of Philadelphia "outrageous," as the city has provided no evidence of discrimination or complaints from gay individuals about the Catholic operations.
"There is not actually a class of people being stopped by the Catholic Church," he said. "The city is willing to leave the homes of available foster parents empty just for working with Catholics … it is shameful."
Religious liberty advocates and various religious sects, including the Catholic Church and Southern Baptists praised the administration's decision, but others said the exemption was only a first step. Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, said HHS should take steps to repeal the Obama-era rules and issue affirmative protections for religious providers who may still be targeted by future administrations that use "the power of the State to bully people who just want to live out their faith and serve their communities."
"We appreciate that Trump's HHS has shown a desire to overturn this shameful Obama-era regulation, and we encourage them to keep up the good work and finish the job as soon as possible," Schilling said.